“Is there a cure?” was one of the first questions a young Tolulope Rosanwo asked after learning her siblings had sickle cell anemia.
The answer—not for everyone—has never satisfied her, and was the impetus for the University of Chicago graduate to attend medical school. Now a third-year Case Western Reserve University medical student, her research focuses on developing improved treatments and a patient-personalized cure for the disease, in which red blood cells don’t properly develop—slowing and preventing blood flow and oxygen to the body.
This summer, Rosanwo is conducting extensive research on the disease as a second-year fellow in the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Medical Research Fellows Program. She is one of 79 students across the country, including Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve students Jennifer Hu and Erin Yamamoto, participating in the program this year.
Rosanwo and Hu, who are longtime friends and former roommates, will complete their fellowships at Harvard Medical School, while Yamamoto will conduct her research at Lerner College.
The program encourages the development of future medical-scientists by providing a year of full-time, mentored laboratory research to medical, dental and veterinary students. Some, like Rosanwo, are asked to stay on for a second year.
Before applying for the program, applicants must first secure a mentor who will work with and support them in their research. HHMI, which often assists in identifying potential mentors, suggested Harvard Medical School Dean George Daley, who has research expertise in blood disorders.
Rosanwo took a chance and emailed Daley cold. To her surprise, he responded. After a reference check and a Skype interview, Daley committed to mentoring Rosanwo.
“That was the first big excitement in the process,” Rosanwo said.
A few months later, Rosanwo was studying for the United States Medical Licensing Exam boards when she learned she had been accepted into the HHMI program.
“I was pretty stressed from studying for the Step 1 exam boards,” she said, “so getting that news was a really wonderful and welcome thing.”
In her first year in the program, Rosanwo worked in Daley’s lab, where she successfully created red blood cells that model sickle cell disease. The support from Daley and the other mentors who Rosanwo worked alongside solidified her decision to continue with her research, which will now focus on investigating ways to fix the sickling problem with the red blood cells she created.
“I decided to stay for a second year because I was really enjoying what I was doing,” Rosanwo said. “I was very invested in my project and wanted to push it further.”
Daley has been one of Rosanwo’s biggest supporters, she said.
“I’m really grateful for that, and also his willingness to let me keep enjoying what I’m doing, and keep on exploring science.”
Learn more about Rosanwo in this week’s five questions.
1. What’s your favorite place in Cleveland?
Severance Hall—I love the Cleveland Orchestra. I was a student ambassador, so I advertised the different performances to my classmates and I got a free pass to all the performances during the season. It’s just right down the street from school, and every time people come visit me in Cleveland, I make sure to take them there.
2. If you could have any superpower, what would you pick?
Oh, healing—easily! That would be very helpful in my line of work.
3. When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A Jedi—I’m a huge Star Wars fan.
4. Throughout all of your schooling, what was the most important lesson you ever learned?
Perseverance. A lot of people don’t try to learn from their mistakes, and just give up. What helps me is building relationships with my professors and peers, and trying not to give up if I don’t understand something. Also, learning how to advocate for myself. It’s hard to get through life if you’re not going to be your own cheerleader.
5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
The faculty really care about the students. At my undergraduate college, I felt like people cared about my education and making sure I was learning, but at Case Western Reserve University, it’s obvious they care about your education and your development as a person. I really appreciate that…I’ve always felt that the faculty here really try to have our best interest at heart and want to support us. Maybe it’s the Midwestern kindness and people are just nicer in Ohio!